“Too bony…” “Cat food…” “Bury ‘em in the garden…” There’s a lot of hate out
there when it comes to the eating qualities of American shad, the oversized
herring that, each spring, runs up the Delaware River to spawn, and readily
takes a well-cast fly. Ironically, much of this criticism comes from shad
anglers themselves, who lob insults at the very fish they have just released.
“Cook ‘em on a plank, then throw away the fish and eat the plank! Hyar, hyar
I’m not sure why shad has fallen out of favor as a food fish among anglers.
Its Latin name, after all, is Alosa sapidissima, which translates to
the “most delicious herring.” Maybe it’s the stigma of the shad’s myriad
bones—it is ridiculously endowed with 1,300 of them. Or perhaps it’s the
mechanical catch-and-release ethos that has permeated fly fishing culture. And
while I am all for conservation, I am equally in favor of a sustainable,
wild-caught meal—particularly one that’s guaranteed as good eats by Linnaeus
Pickled shad and akvavit. The makings of a great night.
My fishing pal Jim Leedom and I have been chasing—and eating—American shad on
the Delaware River for close to three decades. We look forward to the annual
shad run the same way we would the arrival of any seasonal, local food. A fat
springtime shad, properly bled and iced, is as cherished as a quart of wild
asparagus harvested from a fallow farm field or a Ziploc bag of morels picked
from an ultra-secret woodland (don’t even ask).
You can find shad in many rivers sprinkled throughout the country, from East
all the way west to the Columbia.
Come late March or early April, our shad quest begins. I meet Jim at first
light in the usual lower river turn-off. We wade to a narrow island then
follow a short trail that ends abruptly at a hissing, swirling eddy. Below
there, the river regroups then continues along unheeded on its march to the
Atlantic. We venture in just knee-deep, wary of a steep drop off and the risk
of being swept away. Keeping in mind the brushy island behind me, I roll-cast
a chartreuse shad fly of my own making on a fast-sinking shooting head. I
allow it to settle for a few seconds before stripping it back with sharp
jerks. Jim pitches out a shad dart on spinning gear and swings it through the
eddy’s tailout. Despite our dissimilar techniques, our goal is the same:
Between casts, we blow on our fingers in the early morning chill. Though it’s
technically spring, the lower Delaware remains a study of somber grays and
browns: the pewter of cold river water, the dark umber of woods still mostly
winter-bare. But look closely and there are signs of hope. Some trees are
swollen with burgundy buds. Downriver, the first osprey of the year patrols
the river channel.
BANG. Shad on. The seven-weight bucks and a spurt of fly line zips from the
reel. Here in this heavy water, the goal is to prevent the fish from powering
into the main current and blowing out of the eddy. So I exert as much pressure
as ten-pound tippet allows. The fish repeatedly tries to turn into the
current, but I won’t let it. We-tug-of-war until I can feel the moment when it
finally gives up and tacks toward me. I step toward the shore easing it into
pebbly shallows. A four-pound female shad, now on its side, repeatedly slaps
its tail like a tuna until it beaches itself. It is deep-bodied, thick, and as
bright as any steelhead. When the light catches it a certain way, iridescent
blushes of pink and purple flash back. Just a day or two earlier, this fish
abandoned the tide’s pull for the first time in three years—since before it
entered the sea as a migrating juvenile.
Bright and in perfect condition. Photo by Jim Leedom
I kneel down and remove the fly. Then I bleed the fish by grabbing its gill
rakers and pulling. I turn and see that Jim has hooked up, too, and I watch as
he plays his fish the same way—a down-low slugfest. He lands a similar-sized
roe, and it meets the same fate as mine. But then the show is over; a fishless
hour later, with the sun now over the ridge on the far side of the river, we
reel up our lines and decide to call it a morning. One and done—early season
shad fishing can be like that. Back at our cars, we carefully place our
respective catches in ice-filled coolers. Then we briefly discuss the fine
meal that awaits each of our families, and go our separate ways.
At home, the fish is scaled and filleted, and the orange roe sacks carefully
removed. Later, my wife, son, and I will feast on broiled shad seasoned with
lemon pepper, along with roe cooked on a bed of thick-cut bacon. The fillets
have self-basted in their own fat. Lemon is squeezed generously on both flesh
and roe. Then, using either forks or fingers, the shad’s many bones are
separated from its nutty, delicate flesh. Roe, fused with crisp bacon, is
piled high. The sounds of lip-smacking and a few low “mmmmms” can be heard. If
early spring can be rendered into one glorious feast, we are sitting at the
The outcome. Dig in, remember the good times.
Three weeks later, and 50 miles upstream, the river valley has transformed
into a chartreuse wonderland. River birches and sycamores burst with new
foliage. The first migratory songbirds have arrived: phoebes, towhees,
yellow-rumped and pine warblers. A fluty-songed oriole zips from branch-to
branch flashing neon orange. Across the river 300 yards away, a bald eagle
sits low in its massive nest. Fleece hats and fingerless gloves have long been
shed and forgotten. But the river itself is still cool, maybe mid-50s, a
perfect temperature for active shad. This spot, a cobble shoal gently giving
way to deeper water, suitably lacks the brawling brutality of the lower river.
I stand solo, double-hauling the shooting head. Coils of running line whirl
from my stripping basket—essential gear for shad fishing. Then they settle and
straighten in the current before I begin retrieving the fly. The key to this
fishing is speed—fast, foot-long strips like you were prospecting for bluefish
or stripers. The other key is leader length—just two feet of straight
ten-pound test and a simple unweighted shad fly—a body of chartreuse ice
chenille on a number eight streamer hook is all you need.
The fly stops mid-strip. Keeping the rod pointed at the strike, I jab back
with my line hand. First I feel solid thumping weight, then fly line yanks
from my hand and out of the basket. I lift the rod, and the reel chatters
away. This is open water, so I give the shad room to fight. It responds
in-kind with a wild jump and another nice run. It looks to be a male, or buck,
of about three pounds. As I bring it closer, a dozen similar-sized shad ghost
behind it, curious about its sudden runs and jumps. The hooked fish swims
within a few feet of me, prompting the others to peel away two and three at a
time. I slide the buck into the shallows and pounce on it.
I clamp the shad to a chain stringer hanging from my wading belt and let it
bleed out in the river. But I don’t stop casting. Eight releases later,
including a fine roe pushing five pounds, it is time to leave. I bring the
buck to my car, where another shad angler has parked next to me in his
pick-up. He looks at the fish, and then at me, and asks with a bemused
expression: “You’re gonna eat that?”
I place the fish in the cooler, taking my time to make sure it is well-covered
in ice, and then say without looking up, “Oh yeah.”
Perfection. Photo by Jim Leedom
This fish is scaled and filleted then cut into smaller chunks. I toss these
into a container of briny water where they will soak overnight. The next day,
the chunks are rinsed, patted dry, and then placed in a jar with alternate
layers of sliced onion and carrots, along with a smashed clove of garlic, a
bay leaf, and a teaspoon of chopped fresh dill. Lastly, I pour a heated
solution of vinegar, sugar, and pickling spices over the fish, then seal the
jar for three days. On the third day, I drain the vinegar and replace it with
several generous dollops of sour cream. Then I gently stir until the shad and
onions are covered. I now have before me the greatest appetizer ever to adorn
a crisp flatbread. A tangy, sweet, briny, firm, and creamy gift from the river
gods. The traditional accompaniment is a chaser of freezer-cold Scandinavian
aquavit, but Absolut over ice works, too, if you must force me.
By the second week in May, I now find myself almost 100 river miles farther
upstream in the Catskills, on the Upper Delaware’s famous trout water. It is
late morning. And though caddis bounce over rifles and an occasional stately
March Brown rides the currents, it is the shad I still seek. The chartreuse
wall of foliage has followed me to this spot, along with what seems like the
entire eastern migratory bird population. Vireos, thrushes, tanagers,
redstarts, ovenbirds, and various other warblers I can’t identify sing all
around me. I look at the riffle chuckling downstream and then the dark
mysterious pool a short cast away. Above me, a blue dome with a few lazy
cumulus clouds smiles down. I breathe in deep lungfuls of the sweet, earthy
aroma of the Delaware River Valley in its full spring splendor. At this
moment, calf deep, there may be no better place on the planet.
And I am already into a half-dozen shad. A single buck is tethered to my
stringer, which I looped around a partially submerged tree limb. By now, my
casting has fallen into a pleasant routine. Shoot the line, aiming for the far
shore. Let it sink for two seconds, then begin stripping quickly. Repeat until
the line jolts to a halt. Strip-set, then let the shad pull the loose line
from the basket until it’s on the reel.
A drift boat approaches from upriver as I fight another fish. Two sports, both
decked out in full wild trout armament, stare at me. They look perplexed at
the stripping basket and my otherwise minimalist set up (no vest, landing net,
or other high-tech accoutrements; just a fly box, nippers, and leader wheel
stuffed in the pouch of my waders). The guide, trying to play it cool as only
a fishing guide can, says something about how it’s just a shad, and the two
sports immediately try to look disinterested. Yet they continue staring as a
fat roe damn-near takes me into my backing. They float around the next bend
before they can see me land it.
Late that night, I place the shad fillets in a Ziploc bag filled with a
solution of water and equal parts kosher salt and sugar. The next morning, I
rinse off the brine, blot the fillets with a paper towel, and then let them
air dry for an hour. Meanwhile, my trusty Little Chief electric smoker, its
insides blackened with a quarter century of sticky tannins and oils, stands
at-the-ready. I plug it in, lay the fillets on the rack, and replace the lid.
Then I slide in a panful of wood chips. For shad, I use any wood as long as
it’s apple. Soon a steady stream of wonderful-smelling smoke trickles from
beneath the lid. An hour later, I replace the pan with more chips, and four
hours after that, the shad is bronzed with a patina of smoky, caramelized
perfection. I will share one fillet with Jim, a surprise for our next fishing
trip together. The other one I’m about to devour with my paws like a grizzly
bear. I pour myself a chilled mug of spring wheat beer. Then I peel off a
piece of shad along the mostly bone-free upper edge. The tang of the apple
smoke and the almost creamy flavor of the shad intertwine like two beautifully
played musical notes. I sip the cold beer. Then I break off another piece and
pick out a prominent Y-bone. I consider it for a few seconds, this
quintessential shad calling card, and place it next to the rapidly shrinking
The basic ingredients—shad roe, bacon, lemon wedges.
This will be my last shad of the season. Many have already started spawning,
and some of the early fish are past their prime having burned up much of their
fat reserves. I’ll watch them while I cast for trout at last light. The males
torpedoing along the surface chasing females. Later in the summer, pools will
dimple with shoals of fingerlings dropping back to the ocean.
Before I know it, both the beer and smoked shad are gone; just an empty mug
and pile of oddly shaped bones are all that’s left.
You fish enough shad runs and your smoker will tell some history. Long live
the Little Chief.